Big Little Lies is an HBO TV show, based on the Liane Moriarty novel of the same name. It stars Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, and follows the woven lives of several families living in Monterrey, California.
It was first broadcast in the spring of 2017. Following huge recognition the Golden Globe Awards in January, I decided it was time for me to watch the box set.
Each family has a child attending the local Elementary School, and there’s a murder at a school fundraising gala. A death is announced in the very first scene of the very first episode, but neither the victim, the killer or their motive are revealed until the finale.
The show strikes me as being very much Of Its Time, an emblematic cultural artefact of Western culture at the end of the 2010s. I think it does this three different ways.
The first is the problem of toxic masculinity, and it’s almost inevitable end result, the male abuse of women. This is not a new subject, but it has particular currency at the moment because of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and the resultant #MeToo #TimesUp campaigns. To use the word zeitgeist in this context feels wrong, but Big Little Lies is certainly timely in this respect.
It also feels like a mature and layered discussion of the issue: how masculinity is bundled up in ideas of power, self worth, ego and pride; and how there are no ‘perfect victims’ (or indeed perfectly evil perpetrators). The scenes I enjoyed most in the show were those where it was the opposite of soap opera: moments where the women chose not to over-react to something said by another character, but instead answered with empathy. My favourite was a kind, conciliatory scene in Episode 6 between warring mothers Jane (Shailene Woodley) and Renata (Laura Dern). It was refreshing because it lacked the boorish one-upmanship that the men of Monterrey could never shake off.
Most importantly, however, Big Little Lies shows how adult behaviour can impact on children, and in particular how sons can learn sexist behaviour from their fathers. It is sad but noteworthy that the kindest little boy in the show is the one without a Dad.
We male audience members can choose to take that as a slight and declare ‘Not All Men’… or we can listen to what this particular television series is saying to us.
The second way in which Big Little Lies is precisely of this moment is in its depiction of technology, which seems to infiltrate every part of the characters’ lives.
Twins Josh and Max (Cameron and Nicolas Crovetti) are nearly always shown playing video games. In the opening credits, they watch an iPad in the car on the way to school, oblivious to the glorious Monterrey coastline. Six year old Chloe (Darby Camp) is obsessed with her music and is constantly streaming something from her MP3 player into car stereos or the home sound-system. When her friend Ziggy (Iain Armitage) comes over for a play-date, their game of choice is to video themselves lip-syncing to classic tracks.
Tellingly, we do not see any children playing on the beach until the final scene of the series, when they (and their mothers) have achieved some kind of liberation.
Those mothers are beholden to the technology, too. Jane considers murdering someone based upon the results of a Google search; Celeste (Nicole Kidman) finds her plan to escape her abuser is foiled because a mobile phone was left in the walk-in wardrobe for her husband to answer; Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) discovers that her daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton) plans to sell her virginity on the Internet; and a teenager texting-while driving is the cause of not one but two fateful accidents that divert the characters onto unpleasant trajectories. The Silicon Valley tech-bubble is what allows the community to live in opulence, but it presents them with anxieties and reasons for anger that an earlier generation of parents would simply never have encountered.
Preludes and flashbacks are almost de rigeur on television these days. Big Little Lies goes further, by making a total commitment to non-linearity. The story starts in medias res, the aftermath of the death, and then takes us back to the start of the new school term. This story-telling choice imposes an inevitable destiny upon the characters. It heightens the sense that they are too flawed and too set in their ways to be able to avoid their fate. And as if to hammer home the idea that we are watching a Greek tragedy, each episode is punctuated by a series of police interview contributions from minor characters, who comment on the action like a malevolent chorus.
Despite these jumps in the narrative, Big Little Lies is just so easy to understand. The editing and framing conventions of the earlier episodes establish a visual grammar that can be deployed as a kind of short-hand in the later episodes. We know instantly when we are seeing a ‘flash-forward’ police interview; and we also come to recognise the difference between Jane’s unreliable flash-backs, her fantasies, and the reality of her situation. This pays off particularly well in the final denouement, when all those visual styles are combined in quick succession to provide the answer to the mystery. Not a word of dialogue is spoken, but the audience knows in an instant who the victim must be, and why.
This is incredibly sophisticated editing that requires not only great skill from the director, cinematographer and editor, but a visual literacy from the audience, too. Over the past couple of decades, film-makers have honed their technique in this respect (movie like Pulp Fiction, Mulholland Drive and Irreversible, or TV shows like Lost, are emblematic of the style). At the same time, we the audience have evolved to understand and appreciate those techniques.
Crucially, this splicing and layering of images and timelines is not just a stylistic choice, but one that serves this particular story. Human emotions do not run in straight lines. Our decisions are informed as much by our expectations—what we imagine is to come—as by our past experiences. Some choices can only be given meaning in retrospect, and others are forced upon us by actions of others, that collide with our own lives like a truck at an intersection.
The editing enhances our empathy. The visual and structural choices complement the characters’ confusion, as they battle to understand why their lives are failing to follow their expectations. The subject matter of Big Little Lies may be grim, but the way this story is told makes it a compelling and necessary television series. I think it will have a lasting impact.